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Leo Mazzone is headed to Baltimore. Has the Braves’ trademark run-prevention dominance departed with him, or will a new crop of obscure mound marvels and a fresh NL East banner downgrade the legend of Mazzone’s gentle touch?

The final monument to Mazzone’s ability is the work done by the 2005 starting rotation–Atlanta starters compiled an SNLVAR of 26, second most in the majors to Houston, and 194 runs of VORP, behind only the Astros in the NL. These are miraculous figures given a 38-year-old ace and major injuries to third and fourth starters Mike Hampton and John Thomson.

John Smoltz trumped all hopes, throwing 230 innings to carry the team to the playoffs, but the unexpected adrenaline shot was provided by preseason acquisition Jorge Sosa. A believer in the Mazzone aura would surely put Sosa on a short list of the pitching coach’s biggest turnarounds. Entering 2005 with a 5.17 ERA in 327 1/3 major league innings, Sosa stepped into the rotation in mid-June and never stepped out, posting a 2.62 ERA in 20 starts. He finished the year with a 41.1 VORP, better than any hurler on the team except Smoltz (Nick Green, the utility man for whom Sosa was traded, tallied a VORP of 4 in 375 PA for Tampa Bay).

Without Mazzone’s guidance, Sosa might be expected to explode a la Jaret Wright, or perhaps turn back into a Devil Fish at the stroke of midnight. If Sosa can’t contribute in the ’06 rotation, however, it will more likely be the result of a return to statistical reality. Sosa’s 1.33 K/BB ratio in 2005 was not inspiring, and well below the 1.74 ratio he put up in 2004, when he got lit up for a 5.53 ERA in 100 innings with Tampa Bay. Sosa did cut his home-run rate significantly, from 1.29 per nine IP entering the year to 0.81, odd in that he only posted a 0.81 groundball/flyball ratio. A low BABIP (0.269) and high WHIP (1.39) suggest the fates smiled upon Sosa. That batters posted a 792 OPS with none on base versus .587 with runners on against him confirms that belief. You can still bet the farm on another Braves division title in ’06–smart money as long as John Schuerholz is GM–but don’t make your wager dependent upon Sosa continuing his above-average performance.

Sosa’s ERA is due for a northward migration. Hampton is done for 2006 after Tommy John surgery. Smoltz’s shoulder will likely cause him to lose his war with the attrition rate. Tim Hudson has failed to make 30 starts in consecutive seasons, and is coming off the worst year of his career (by VORP). You’ve heard all about Jeff Francouer, Kelly Johnson and Brian McCann, but is the system that spit out Tom Glavine, Jason Schmidt and Kevin Millwood prepared to plug the inevitable leaking that will occur in the rotation next season? BP’s Nate Silver recently found each major-league team used an average of 33 starts from pitchers not in the preseason rotation in 2005. According to Silver, the Braves needed 39 starts from pitchers not in the projected quintet, and that figure will likely be high next year as well.

The world might not be ready for him, but Chuck James is on the verge of hitting the show as the Braves’ top option for rotational damage control. A lefty with a disputatious reputation (“James, to hear those who’ve been around him tell it, is to a good attitude what Marion Berry is to ascetic restraint,” opined BP 2005), James cut his 2003-04 walk rate and ripped through three levels to earn a September call-up:

MYR    HI-A   7 41.2   8  59  1  1.08  .139
MIS    AA    16 86.0  18 104  4  2.09  .199
RIC    AAA    6 33.2  10  30  4  3.48  .176

Following two seasons in the low minors in which he struck out 224 in 182 1/3 innings, James finished fourth in the minors with 193 strikeouts in ’05. He led all minor-league qualifiers with a .179 batting average against, finished third with a 2.12 ERA, and sixth in K/9 (10.77). He did turn 24 this month, threw in good pitcher’s parks, and recorded a stunningly low 0.35 G/F ratio. While fly outs can turn into long balls, however, they also naturally lead to lower hit totals. James deserves a chance, and at some point next year the Braves will need him.

Besides James, 22-year-old righthander Kyle Davies and 23-year-old righty Anthony Lerew are candidates to sew up holes in next year’s rotation. Davies book-ended an up-and-down 87 2/3-inning stint in the Atlanta rotation with time at Triple-A Richmond, where he compiled a 3.44 ERA and 62/34 K/BB in 73.3 innings. Lerew put up a 3.71 ERA and 117/55 K/BB in 148 innings split between Double- and Triple-A. Both, along with James and fellow youngsters Brad Baker (recently signed as a minor-league free agent), Blaine Boyer, Joey Devine and Macay McBride–all with less than one year of major-league service time–should also see action in a bullpen that was only 26 runs better than replacement level in 2005.

In the first year without the staff mentor, it’s up to Chuck James and Co. to prove Braves rookies can thrive post-Mazzone. With a potentially unstable rotation, the fate of Atlanta’s 14-year streak might well hinge on their success.

Keith Woolner and Jay Jaffe contributed to this article

Caleb Peiffer

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Esteban Loaiza concedes that he wasn’t expecting this much money. Oakland trumped the Giants’ offer, securing Loaiza to pitch on the East Bay for $21 million over the next three years. The signing sparked much internal debate here at Baseball Prospectus, as we’ve disputed the merits of both the offer itself and what else it might signal for the A’s. In that vein, let’s approach this deal from several different perspectives.

  • The pitcher: Loaiza has blazed an unusual career path. Once a practical punchline and synonymous with “mediocre,” he scooted from one team to the next as he teased employers with flashes of command. His control was generally good, but the strikeout rates wavered. He pitched all the way through his late 20s without ever piecing together his talent.

    But in 2003, at age 31, he unveiled a devastating cut fastball, riding the new pitch to a second-place finish in the American League Cy Young race. He was a new pitcher: from fanning 13 percent of opposing batters in 2002 to over 22 percent in 2003, dropping his opponents’ batting average by 76 points, and dropping his ERA by almost three runs. Loaiza’s performance collapsed in 2004, he was traded for Jose Contreras midseason, and he netted a meager one-year, $2.9 million deal with the Nationals in an untimely bout with free agency a year ago. At the time, BP ’05 correctly pinned Loaiza’s chances of recovery on his walk rate, even mentioning “if his control comes back, he won’t be up in the strike zone, won’t give up a career high in home runs [as he did in 2004].” Prophetic words:

    Year  TBF  BB/BF  HR/BF
    2003  922  .061   .018
    2004  818  .086   .039
    2005  912  .060   .019

    He didn’t factor into the NL Cy Young running this year, but it was certainly a strong recovery for a 33-year-old.

  • The deal and the market: Three years, $21.375 million. A year after it seemed he’d lost his best shot at big money, Loaiza hit the jackpot. No one compared it to B.J. Ryan-level crazy, but some eyebrows were certainly raised. The case can be made that Oakland could’ve better spent this money elsewhere, but is the deal itself that unreasonable? Loaiza has averaged 209 innings since the dawn of his cutter. The ERA in that time has darted from 2.90 to 5.70 to 3.77, but how is that much different from what, say, Derek Lowe did (2.58, 4.47, 5.42) in the three years leading up to his free agency? Lowe spun that into a four-year deal for $36 million. Let’s stack Loaiza’s deal against comparable starting pitchers from last winter, keeping in mind that it’s natural to expect some inflation.
    Player          Team  Age  VORP* Years Total Value**
    Carl Pavano     NYY   29   21.3    4     $39.95
    Derek Lowe      LAN   32   17.6    4      36.00
    Russ Ortiz      ARI   31   12.1    4      33.00
    Matt Clement    BOS   30   38.6    3      25.50
    Eric Milton     CIN   29   10.9    3      25.50
    Odalis Perez    LAN   28   13.6    3      24.00
    Kris Benson     NYN   30   24.9    3      22.50
    Jon Lieber      PHI   35   19.1    3      21.00
    Jaret Wright    NYA   29   16.5    3      21.00
    Brad Radke      MIN   32   32.0    2      18.00
    Paul Wilson     CIN   32    5.4    2       8.25
    Kevin Millwood  CLE   30   23.5    1       7.00
    Matt Morris     STL   30   20.7    1       6.25
    Paul Byrd       LAA   34   17.7    1       5.00
    Esteban Loaiza  OAK   33   24.0    3      21.38
    * Weighted Mean PECOTA projection for 2005 (2006 for Loaiza)
    ** in millions

    It’s quick and it’s dirty, but only three of those pitchers had a higher projected VORP than Loaiza, and his contract settles into the middle of last year’s pack. Counting inflation, and in such a shallow market this winter, the contract doesn’t look bad at all. As a minor perk, taking Loaiza off the market can only drive up the industry’s demand for starting pitching–which may or may not be a coincidence.

  • The new rotation: By all accounts, the Oakland A’s are stacked one through five. Joe Blanton, whose VORP of 44.3 led all rookies in baseball, is slotted as the fifth starter next year. In 2005, the rotation was one of baseball’s best, despite a mere 19 starts from budding staff ace Rich Harden. Take SNLVAR, for example. (It measures wins above replacement, weighing a pitcher’s contribution to his team’s chances of winning each game, and it assumes average bullpen and run support.) The A’s rotation as a whole ranked fifth in the game:
    Team  SNLVAR
    HOU   29.63
    ATL   25.97
    ANA   25.88
    SLN   25.86
    OAK   25.44

    With Loaiza on board in place of Kirk Saarloos, Joe Kennedy and the others who filled in after the Big Four, Oakland would have ranked second in SNLVAR. With a full season of Harden, they might have been first. Obviously, next year is what counts, but if Loaiza pitches like he’s able and the rest of the staff stays healthy, this will continue to be a first-rate rotation.

  • The aftermath: Perhaps the most fascinating part of this story is what it means for Oakland’s nominal ace, Barry Zito. Despite GM Billy Beane‘s insinuation that he might just hang on to his prize lefty, ride out the final year of the contract and collect his draft picks in June 2007, many expect him to trade Zito soon. Certainly there’s no harm in shopping Zito, and in this market it’s quite likely that Beane can get a sufficient offer.

    Zito is a Cy Young winner. He’s left-handed. He’s young. Popular. Marketable. He’s everything that makes GMs willing to overpay. Also, he’s due $8.5 million–below market value, but high enough that Oakland can probably find better uses for the money. Zito might be the Opening Day starter, but he’s not the A’s best starter. With a 4.16 ERA over the past two years, he might not even be their second best starter. He’s still very valuable, both healthy and consistent–pitching no fewer than 213 frames for each of the past five years–but the perception that he is one of baseball’s elite is largely rooted in the pitcher Zito was three or four years ago. When he won the Cy Young in 2002, he ranked third among all pitchers in VORP; since then, 11th, 54th, and this year, 25th. Care to guess who who was 24th?

    Esteban Loaiza.

    That’s not to imply that Loaiza has a brighter future than Zito; after all, Zito is six years younger. More to the point, Saarloos, Kennedy, Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer, and possibly another pitcher obtained in a Zito deal stand at the door. Let’s not forget that Beane pried Dan Haren away from St. Louis last winter (along with Daric Barton and Kiko Calero) for Mark Mulder. It’s naïve to expect such a sweet deal to happen twice, but in this market, Beane can probably pull off something closer to that than the relatively modest return for Tim Hudson.

Special thanks to Keith Woolner for his research.

Dave Haller

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